Pope Francis Oversees a Crackdown on a Franciscan Order

Pope Francis Oversees a Crackdown on a Franciscan Order

Democrat (and Roman Catholic) Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan of New York is reputed to have said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

It would also be fair to say that every Catholic is entitled to his or her own opinions or even beliefs, but not his or her own Church. The Roman Catholic Church is not a democracy. In the end, however much discussion and debate goes into an issue, the pope is the ultimate earthly authority, under the guidance and protection of the Holy Spirit. In turn, the pontiff answers to Sacred Scripture and Tradition (known collectively as the Deposit of Faith), and to the Church’s true head and high priest, Jesus Christ.

The issue of papal authority has been a thorny one since Christ first handed the keys to the kingdom to St. Peter and declared that he was the rock upon which He would build His Church.

One might assume that people serving the Church in religious communities or the priesthood would automatically be in line with the Vatican. But, as has been seen over the two millennia of the Church’s history, that is not always the case. And some of the most painful disputes possible are those that occur within the Church family.

On July 11, the Vatican’s Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life issued a decree regarding a relatively new religious order, The Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate (FFI), a spin-off from the larger Franciscan tradition, that began in 1970 as a group (eventually both men and women, religious and laity) dedicated to the Virgin Mary and missionary work.

In 2012, five of the Franciscan priests from the Order’s motherhouse petitioned the Congregation for Religious in Rome for help negotiating with one of the founders about how to govern the Order. That resulted in a year-long apostolic visitation starting in July 2012. In Sept. 2013, the results of a questionnaire sent to all the friars with perpetual vows showed a majority concerned about the governance of the Order and its liturgical practices; and there were also concerns about the female side of the Order.

So, the Vatican did not single out the FFI but was instead asked to step in to deal with what appear to be very real problems, both spiritual and practical.

On the command of Pope Francis, Capuchin (a kind of Franciscan) Father Fidenzio Volpi was appointed Apostolic Commissioner in July 2013, responsible for dealing with problems in the Order. Some of the results of his and subsequent work have rattled many traditionalists who have had a hard time letting go of Pope Benedict and embracing–and especially obeying–his successor.

The main issue inciting Internet furor centers on the celebration of the Tridentine Mass–the older form–which had rapidly become the norm for the friars and the only Mass celebrated by the sisters.

Although the vast majority of Catholics has never heard of the FFI, the news of the decree was met with shock and anger in traditional Catholic circles. This centered on the final paragraph of the decree, which read:

“In addition to the above, the Holy Father Francis had directed that every religious of the congregation of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate is required to celebrate the liturgy according to the ordinary rite, and that, if the occasion should arise, the use of the extraordinary form (vetus ordo) must be explicitly authorized by the competent authorities for every religious and/or community that makes the request.”

All this may sound very inside-Catholic-baseball, or just entirely incomprehensible, to many, but it goes to the heart of a very common human dilemma–change is hard, and for some, change is impossible. And once a hard break occurs, things like pride, hurt feelings, stubbornness and a siege mentality can set in, leaving little room for negotiation.

Throw in the media, which usually has no love for the Church, zealous lay people and the Internet, and you’ve got a lot of sound and fury, signifying…well, no one outside the investigation really knows at this point.

But first, a little background.

In the early 1960s, when the Vatican II documents were released, and most especially when they began to be implemented (in some cases, in very ill-advised and poorly thought-out ways), some Catholics dug in their heels and refused to go along with the changes.

They wanted to live in the Catholic world as it had always been, especially in terms of the Mass. They wanted the language to be exclusively Latin; the priest and the congregation to both face the altar; the congregants to listen more than participate; communion kneeling and on the tongue, etc.

In 1969, the Mass of Pope Paul VI was introduced to the Western Rite of the Church, called the Novus Ordo (or “new order”). That is the form of the Mass currently in use at the Vatican and in most parishes around the world, with the priest facing the congregation, more vocal participation of the congregants; communion standing, and so on.

Those that loved the deep tradition, stateliness and reverence of the Tridentine Mass–also called the Extraordinary Form (or EF, with the Novus Ordo, the Ordinary Form, being the OF), or just the “Latin Mass,” have had much to legitimately complain about.

The Novus Ordo, whether in Latin or the vernacular, can be quite beautiful, but anyone who has been to Mass at different American parishes knows that it’s too often done sloppily, off-handedly, lazily or irreverently (and that goes for clerics and laity).

In 2007, then-Pope Benedict XVI, often hailed as a traditionalist, issued the apostolic letter “Summorum Pontificum,” establishing guidelines for celebrating the Latin Mass. Pointing out that the 1962 Roman Missal describing the form of this Mass had never been abrogated, and that there persisted a sizable number of Catholics attached to the Latin Mass for historical, cultural or emotional reasons, he tried to walk a line between allowing them to worship as they always had, while assuring that both forms would be respected and recognized as legitimate liturgical expressions.

In most cases, at present, if sufficient parishioners petition their pastor to offer a Latin Mass, he can decide to do so (but he may have to get the bishop’s permission). But since it’s been a few decades, and many priests haven’t been trained in the more demanding style of that Mass, it’s still a rarity in most places. But it’s gaining popularity, especially among young people, who are drawn to its history and beauty. One can envision a time when the older Mass is a regular feature of many more parishes, and perhaps even preferred in some.

Sadly, the EF/OF situation has also become a flashpoint for controversy and division among those who are either reluctant, or outright refuse, to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Novus Ordo–or even of the post-Vatican-II papacy. It has led to groups exiting the Church altogether, to form schismatic “Traditional” parishes and religious orders that look and claim to be Catholic while not being in communion with the See of Peter.

Other people who consider themselves traditional have stayed in the Church. The FFI is part of the Church, but not all its members may want to stay that way. Underneath all the petitions against Father Volpi, and the angry blog posts and harsh words, that may just be the kernel of the problem.

Whatever Volpi found, the Vatican’s response has been severe. FFI has had its superior removed, its seminary closed, and its members have been asked to take an oath stating that the Novus Ordo is an “authentic expression of the liturgical tradition of the Church.”

So, it’s not the love of the Latin Mass that’s the problem–it’s that love possibly combined with a total rejection of the Novus Ordo, perhaps the underlying theology of Vatican II as well, and by extension, the authority of popes from Paul VI to Francis.

According to some sources, this is the sticking point with the FFI, leading Father Volpi to fear elements in the group are prepared to break with Rome. Along with hints of a schism and concern over reports about the the forceful alteration of the group’s charism (a word for its unique mission), there may be financial irregularities.

There’s been a lot of strong emotion and hysteria surrounding this FFI situation, but that’s no indication of who’s right or wrong or what will happen. The faithful may want to try a novena to Mary, Untier of Knots, as this situation may require a bit of divine intervention to end peacefully for all involved.


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